How to Milk a Coconut: A TaytoRiCo Challenge

Friday, April 1, 2011 32 comments
Purple Rice, Sweet Potato & Shrimps in Coconut Sauce

You say potato, I say . . . how about adding some rice and coconut?

That was pretty much the gist of the Twitter exchanges between an award-winning Irish Spud (@DailySpud), a video-creating Online Pastry Chef (@jmfield) and this rice-loving Noodle (@TangledNoodle), which gave rise to the Great #TaytoRiCo Challenge of 2011. The task: to cook up a dish incorporating potato, rice and coconut, any iterations of which - e.g. sweet potato, rice flour, coconut milk - were also acceptable. Seeing as how I had a hand in concocting this event, it seemed only right and proper that I should make an extra effort with my entry.

A 'Nutty Idea 

Since moving to the Philippines, Mr. Noodle and I have enjoyed many a coconut milk-drenched dish, from savory adobong manok sa gata (chicken adobo in coconut milk) to sweet ginataang bilo-bilo (coconut tapioca pudding). While I've made my fair share of  recipes using this ingredient in canned form back in the US, there was something different about the flavor in the dishes here - more subtle yet distinctly and unmistakably coconut-y. The secret? Freshly squeezed coconut milk! Now that I live and cook in the world's top coconut producing country, there are nearly 20 million tons of reasons why I need to ditch the can and go straight to the source.

So, I learned the rudiments of coconut milk extraction from my parents' housekeeper, then made a few technical adjustments, resulting not only in a successful first try, but also an opportunity to kill two #TaytoRiCo birds with one stone. Not only did I adhere to the parameters of the challenge with what was made, I also followed them with how it was made. Unabashedly thrilled with how well it worked out, I simply had to share.

Secret weapon...

How to Milk a Coconut with a Potato Ricer

Why milk a coconut when I can open a can?

Wielding a can opener is certainly much easier than the process I'm about to describe. In fact, there are some very good canned coconut milk products on store shelves that will do justice to your recipes. The differences between freshly extracted and canned are admittedly very fine and difficult to describe. I find the flavor of fresh coconut milk when used in a savory dish to be subtle yet distinct - you can taste coconut, but it acts to enhance the other ingredients, becoming part of the flavor profile rather than dominating it. While good quality canned products can achieve the same, I find that many seem too processed and strained of any bits of coconut meat. Devoid of such texture, canned coconut milk sometimes has an oddly thick mouthfeel. This is likely due to thickeners added to some brands, especially their 'light' versions, to keep the milk from separating and produce the creamy consistency that consumers expect.

Is it difficult to milk a coconut?

Photo credit: Kevin.Souza/flickr
Not really, but the hands-on method as practiced in the Philippines and elsewhere requires a very firm grip to exert a good deal of pressure. Finely grated coconut meat is taken by the fistful and squeezed until every drop of liquid has been wrung out of it. As you can imagine, this takes an incredible amount of hand strength, which is a problem for people such as myself, who barely have enough gripping power to pry open a bag of chips, much less extract a sufficient amount of coconut milk to fill an eye dropper. As such, I came upon a handy bit of mechanical assistance.

But first things first - you can't get coconut milk until you have the right kind of coconut.

The 'right kind'? Aren't all coconuts the same?

Notwithstanding varieties within the species, all coconut palm trees are Cocos nucifera. So, yes, all coconuts are the same - except when you want to milk one. I am not referring to the species variations, but rather to the appropriate stage of a coconut's development. Contrary to what its name implies, a coconut is not a nut; it is, in fact, a drupe - a type of fruit that includes peaches, plums and cherries. Unlike the juicy flesh of those delicious drupes, however, it is the seed which is edible and what we recognize as a coconut. Depending on its stage of maturity, this seed yields meat and liquid of entirely different textures and consistencies.

Choose the right kind of coconut!
('No!' Photo credit: Puck777/flickr)

In the Philippines, a young coconut is called buko and is characterized by a thick green outer husk, a thin, almost gelatinous white interior flesh and a sweet clear juice referred to as coconut water. None of these are suitable for our purpose of coconut milking. Leave those green coconuts to be adorned with a tiny paper umbrella and for sipping with a straw while on your next tropical island vacation.

Instead, look for the mature coconut, called magulang in Tagalog, that looks like, well, a coconut: small, round, brown and hairy. At this stage, much of the coconut water has been absorbed, although there's still some left, and the jelly-soft flesh is now more firm 'meat'. Make sure to look for any cracks in the shell, which might indicate that the meat inside is dry - not good. This is where all that lovely coconut milk will come from, so it should still be moist after you've managed to open the shell. Now, gather your tools and let's get a-coconut-crackin'!

What tools do I need?

The well-equipped coconut milker should have the following:

  • A large sturdy cleaver, butcher, or chef's knife
  • Two to three bowls, big enough to hold several cups of grated coconut
  • One wide-rimmed shallow bowl or baking pan
  • A kudkuran, aka kabayo (a coconut grater)
  • A fine mesh strainer (mine is 6" diameter)
  • A potato ricer
  • Measuring cups or liquid containers
  • Some lukewarm water (1 cup per coconut)

All of these, with the exception of one, are items you likely have in your home. If you do not already have a potato ricer, I would enthusiastically recommend buying one, and not just because it's the star of this blog post. If nothing else, it produces the fluffiest, creamiest, unchunkiest mashed potatoes known to spud-kind and puts the masher to shame.

The wild card in this deck is really the kudkuran, or coconut grater, as it is known in the Philippines. Also called kabayo (from Sp. caballo=horse) for the way one straddles it, this simple contraption that looks like a wooden footstool with a metal tongue is very much an integral tool in the Filipino kitchen. I brought back one of the round, serrated blades after my first visit to Manila several years ago and attached it to a wooden stool from a craft store. Later, I found kudkurans at our local Asian markets, selling for about $15US.

But a kudkuran is such a one-task, novelty item. Do I really need one?

Yes. Although there are other means of grating coconut meat, such as using a food processor or cheese grater, you may not achieve the necessary consistency for pressing out milk as you would with this simple little workhorse.

Alright, I've got all the tools - what's next?

First, let's get that coconut open! Coconuts sold in US supermarkets are sometimes scored with a thin line or crossmark to help crack it open. Start by holding the coconut firmly in one hand, with the scored section up, if any, over the sink. There will still be some coconut water left - you can simply drain it out or save for later. Then, with the blunt side of your cleaver or knife (for the love and continued good health of your appendages - USE THE BLUNT SIDE!), give the coconut a sharp thwack or two to crack it. Give it a quarter turn and another hard thwack, then repeat until the coconut splits in half. Watch this video for a helpful demonstration [fast forward to the 1:04 mark].

Lay a rug or some newspapers on the floor and set your kudkuran on top, with a large shallow bowl or baking pan beneath the grating blade. Before you hop on and start grating, check out this post on Thai Coconut Grater by Leela at She Simmers, or watch this demo for tips on technique:

(Please excuse the vertigo-inducing camera angle) 

Done! The grated coconut is so soft and fluffy. How do I get the milk out of it?

That snow-like mound of coconut (niyog) holds more moisture than you think, but you'll need some help to draw it out. As mentioned earlier, the traditional but messy, inefficient and cramp-inducing method is to simply grab a handful of niyog and squeeze it in your fist with as much force as needed to turn a piece of coal into a diamond, while the precious milk seeps out between your (hopefully clean) fingers.

A better option: say hello to your shiny little friend, the potato ricer!  Place the mesh strainer over a bowl, then open your ricer and fill it to nearly full with niyog. Hold it over the strainer and bowl, and firmly press the grated coconut, letting the milk run through the strainer to catch stray pieces, until no more liquid comes out. Scoop the wrung out coconut into a separate bowl and repeat until all of the freshly grated niyog have been pressed.

Potato Ricer/Coconut Milker

How much milk will I get?

One coconut will yield approximately 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of extracted liquid on your first go-round. This first pressing is called kakang gatâ, or coconut cream, and is the pure, rich essence of coconut. Transfer the cream into a small bowl or measuring cup and set aside. Now, there is still plenty left in the niyog you've just squeezed, but once again, a little help is needed to extract it.

Pour 1 cup of lukewarm water for every coconut you've grated and stir well into the niyog. The water will be quickly absorbed by the grated coconut; just let it sit for about 5 minutes, then repeat the potato ricer method above. This time, you'll notice that more (about 1 and 1/4 cups) and thinner liquid will be extracted - this second pressing is simply called gatâ (milk). Transfer the milk to a bowl or cup, separate from the cream.

Why are the cream and milk kept separate?

While gatâ/coconut milk is essentially kakang gatâ/coconut cream with more water content, they are best used in different kinds of dishes: the cream is perfect in rich desserts and thick sauces, while the thinner milk is great for soups, like my favorite Tom Kha Gai. They are also optimal when added at different points in the preparation. When coconut cream and milk are combined, they can separate when cooking at high heat; though it won't taste bad, the texture of your soup may look clumpy or the consistency of your sauce too thin. I noticed this problem when using certain canned coconut milk, which are often a mixture of the first and second extractions, and can contain 25% or more water.

Fortunately, when milking fresh coconut, you can control for this - simply use the milk/second extraction for general cooking on higher heat, then add the cream/first extraction at the very end of cooking (or after you've turned off the heat) as a thickener.

Cream of the crop: kakang gatâ (first extraction)

What should I do with the wrung out coconut meat?

If you're like me, you'll find yourself nibbling on the leftover. And like me, you'll probably notice that it's pretty much flavorless sawdust at this point. However, it's still usable - try toasting it lightly in a dry pan on the stovetop. But keep in mind that there's not much moisture left, so watch carefully that the coconut does not burn.

If I don't use the coconut cream and milk right away, how do I store them?

One coconut will yield approximately 2 cups of liquid in all (both cream and milk), which is just the right amount for most recipes. If you do have any left over, then store the cream and milk in separate, tightly-lidded jars or containers and refrigerate. For best results, use within a couple of days of extraction.

And with that, consider yourself a Coconut Grater Extraordinaire! Now, how about trying out your fresh coconut milk in this #TaytoRiCo recipe?

Tapol, Kamote at Suahe sa Gata
(Purple Rice, Sweet Potato and Shrimps in Coconut Sauce)

In spite of the spontaneous nature of #TaytoRiCo's genesis and Jenni's call to 'think outside of the box', my dish is quite conformist  - a simple sauté of kamote (sweet potato), talbos ng kamote (sweet potato leaves) and suahe (shrimps) in a savory coconut sauce served over rice. But such sauciness begged for something more than pure and virtuous white rice, something dark and passionate . . . something like tapol (also called pirurutong), a variety of purple/black rice commonly used in sweet desserts such as Thai Rice Pudding and the Filipino Christmas favorite, Puto Bumbong. Less sexy but good to know information, tapol shares many similarities with brown rice in its nutty flavor, firm and chewy texture, long preparation time and beneficial nutrient content. However, these dark violet grains have something that their more drab counterparts lack: potent antioxidants called anthocyanins, the pigments that give blueberries and other fruits their vivid colors.

Although purple/black rice is most often used in dessert dishes, I've wanted to use it in a savory preparation since I first tasted it over a decade ago at the now-defunct Cendrillon, the celebrated SoHo Filipino restaurant run by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, currently of Purple Yam fame in Brooklyn, New York. I don't recall many details about the dish other than it was made of black rice and had shrimp in a coconut sauce. Based on that bit of memory, I made cooked up the rice, locally-caught shrimp, sweet potato from a bishop's garden in Bataan (a gift to my mother) and coconut milk which I proudly extracted with my own two hands and a potato ricer.

Serves 4-6


2 Tablespoons canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 small shallots, sliced thin
2" piece of ginger, peeled and slivered
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2" cubes
1 lb fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and each chopped by thirds
1 small bunch potato leaves, rinsed and large stems removed
2-3 teaspoons patis (fish sauce)
12 to 14 ounces (1.25-1.5 cups) freshly pressed coconut milk (gatâ)
4-6 ounces (1/2-3/4 cup) freshly pressed coconut cream (kakang gatâ)

1 cup tapol (purple/black rice), uncooked

(Clockwise from top left) Tapol, Kamote, Coconut, Talbos ng Kamote

To make:

Prepare the rice in advance as it will require from 35-50 minutes to cook. To cook, please check out these excellent directions that I used on how to make perfectly-cooked purple/black rice from Jackie at Pham Fatale.

  1. Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and add garlic, shallots and ginger. Cook just until they begin to soften, then add the potatoes. Sauté until potatoes begin to soften and everything starts to brown, stirring to keep from sticking to the pan;
  2. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink;
  3. Add the coconut milk/gatâ and patis, and bring to a low, very gentle simmer;
  4. Add the potato leaves, stirring into the sauce; cover and let cook for about 5 minutes;
  5. Uncover the pan and turn down heat to low* so that the sauce stops simmering, then add the coconut cream/kakang gatâ and stir well to blend into the sauce. Leave the sauce for about 5-7 minutes, allowing the cream to thicken the sauce.
Many thanks to my tweeters-in-arm Jenni of Pastry Methods and Techniques (PMAT if you're nasty!) and Aiofe of The Daily Spud, and to all our Twitter and blog friends who joined us for this potato, rice and coconut extravaganza. Please be sure to check out the round-up of delicious #TaytoRiCo entries for a bit of dinner and dessert inspiration!


  • Jenni said...

    Oh, brava, TN! Brava! I love it. And now I know how to milk a coconut. With a potato ricer--see, you did think outside the box!

    One question: will a ricer help you open a bag of chips? ;)

    This was so much fun. Yay-TaytoRiCo!

  • Bergamot said...

    The tips on extracting coconut milk are good. Using a potato ricer for squeezing out the coconut milk is interesting. The dish you made look delicious. Like the colors.

  • vanillasugarblog said...

    wow. a lot of thought and work went into this post. i admire all that work. i drink coconut water everyday. the pure stuff, not the fancy schmachy stuff that isn't the real deal.

  • Anonymous said...

    Awesome and very educational! At our supermarket we have all kinds of coconuts and I've been a bit intimidated to try them but now I'm encouraged to pick some up! The dish with shrimps and coconut sauce looks amazingly delicious!

  • Caroline said...

    Another great post, Tracey! Love the idea of using a potato ricer. I already have one, I just need a kudkuran so I can have fresh coconut milk. I would also need to find purple rice so I can make this savory recipe.
    This was a fun challenge, looking forward to another 3-ingredient challenge anytime soon.
    Note to self: call mother to see if she has a bishop friend who has a garden. ;)

  • Daily Spud said...

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant TN, what an epic journey down the TaytoRiCo path! Way to go to have the potato ricer be the hero of the piece. Now I just need a stool, a coconut grating blade, a loverly bunch of coconuts and I'm set :)

  • Tim said...

    Great post! So much detail, and fun to read.
    It's funny, because I meet so many people who think that the coconut milk is the liquid that's inside the coconut, and not that it's made from the flesh.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you for all the great comments! I hope I've put you in a coconut-milking mood... 8-D

    Jenni - Nothing can help me with those bag o' chips except my own brawny Mr. Noodle. 8-P Thanks so much for spearheading our TaytoRiCo efforts! We'll have to see what other wacky combos we can come up with next!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Gaaah! I wrote replies to your comments and only one showed up?! Ugh. Let's try this again:

    Pretty Pauline - Thank you so much! I'm so happy that you enjoyed it. 8-D

    Bergamot - Thanks! The color of the rice is really even more impressive in real life. 8-)

    Doggybloggy - Hope that coconut met a happy fate and reincarnation as milk and cream! 8-)

    Amy - The first time I ever cracked a coconut, I was petrified that I'd hack off my hand! But all's well that end's well. Hope you find a kudkuran in the Twin Cities - I tweeted a couple of possible locations! 8-)

    Hornsfan - I know, huh? Either by machine or by hand-squeezing, I didn't think it would be so easy! But it is - do give it a try. 8-D

    Vanillasugar - I have accepted the fact that I'm incapable of a short, quick post! Coconut water is elixir - here in the Philippines, it's pretty much a cure all. The milk and cream are equally delicious! 8-)

    5 Star Foodie - I hope you do give coconuts a try! I bet Junior 5 Star would find milking a coconut great fun! 8-)

    Caroline - Thank you! I'm sure you can easily find a kudkuran somewhere near you. As for the purple rice, I used to find it at CostPlus WorldMarket and I bet Whole Foods carries it (also known as 'forbidden rice' - oooooh!) Will swap you some for your ube mochi bilo-bilo!

    Spud! - Thank you so much! It was such great fun to do this with you and Jenni. What other mad combo can we think of? I'll have to figure out a way to get a kudkuran out to you... 8-D

    Penny - Hehe! I'm assuming you're referring to grating the coconut? It's not easy at first but once you get the hang, it goes pretty quickly. I used to love doing it when I was younger. 8-D

    Joy - Thank you! It tasted just as good! 8-)

    Tim - Thanks! To be honest, I never even used to think about where the milk came from, but when I looked it up online, I was so surprised at how many sites referred to 'milking' a coconut when they just meant tapping or draining out the coconut water. Also, most advice to crack it open involved screwdrivers and hammers. What?! So happy that you enjoyed it! 8-)

    Jennifer - Hugs back atcha!! Coconut milk festival sounds like a great idea! 8-D

  • Midge said...

    I adore the different colors, tastes, and textures you've incorporated into this dish. It's the most exotic - and scrumptious - act of carbo-loading ever!

    (Incidentally, while we do have an old-fashioned kudkuran at home, I tend to use the canned stuff. Given how clumsy I am, using an old-school grater's kinda risky...)

  • Anonymous said...

    wow that looks labor intensive. thanks for sharing your tips and techniques looks like it was worth it for that yummy meal!

  • ChichaJo said...

    Fantastic post on coconut! I think I take for granted that fresh coconut milk is so available here, especially since it is a bit of work to get it! But your post has spelled it out so easily...and now I'm convinced I need that ricer!

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    I've watched "manang" do this before and so reading your post point by point made me smile. I remember when we request for something with coconut milk my mom would say "it's laborious for manang to do" but had we known the use of an ingenious potato ricer then maybe my mom would not mind manang do it.

    I was so excited to join the Taytorico challenge but was "sick" in fact i made 2 attempts but are not palatable haha... but im still taytorico-rized so I might as well do one more try to end this madness haha.

    great post tracey... and your dish is something i haven't tried before esp the purple rice but anything would gata is fantastic.


  • Laura said...

    I have such mixed feelings about this issue. I know, a weird thing to have angst over, but as you may or may not have noticed, I take my Thai curry very seriously. I pound the paste out from scratch, etc. I take all international cuisine (the traditional dishes) pretty darn seriously. But when confronted with the recommendation that I milk a coconut, well... I mean I live in Ohio! I don't even know where to find a decent coconut. And honestly, even if I did I own enough space absorbing unitaskers without a footstool just for milking a coconut 2x a year! But then of course I want to do it right, so....

    Anyway, great post, very interesting, love the potato ricer suggestion.

  • Conor @ Hold the Beef said...

    So very educational, with a delicious recipe to boot, as usual! I have never done this, and in all honesty can't see myself doing it any time soon, which is a bit silly really as I love coconut so very much.

    Oh time, I wish I had more of you!

  • Lori said...

    I am in awe! Love this helpful post. I have yet to make my own coconut milk and wow did I miss a great opportunity. I mean, what better place to get the coconuts than in Brazil! I just wasn't ready to tackle it then.

    This dish sounds amazing. I have some purple sticky rice in the pantry and is patiently waiting to be used. This would be perfect!

  • Cherrie Pie said...

    I can't believe that I haven't left a comment even though I saw this post when you first posted it. duh! anyway, I love your step by step instructions on how to make coconut milk. I also love the looks of your creation. YUM

  • My Life on the B-List said...

    I've been extremely curious about the TaytoRiCo challenge. I've been hearing so much about it on twitter. :) Your final dish looks and sounds absolutely appetizing! Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that I passed eight blog awards to you i hope you can drop by and pick them up here :) Have an awesome day!

  • Chef E said...

    I am just flat out hungry now, between you and 5 Star foodies latest post...going to go cook me some rice, and I hope I have coconut milk in the cabinet...


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